MASHANTUCKET, Conn. — As Sherry Pocknett prepares a Native American thanksgiving meal, she tells a story about the bird central to the feast: the crow.
Pocknett, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, is making pumpkin stuffed with corn, squash, and beans, a trio of ingredients known by Native Americans as the Three Sisters. “It was a gift from the bird, the crow. They are sacred to us,” Pocknett says of the staple foods. The story goes they have been grown together since they were given to Native Americans by the crow after the Ice Age.
Pocknett directs the food and beverage program at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center. She looks for every opportunity to educate visitors on the native foods she has been eating her whole life and cooking for some 40 years. Her next big opportunity to do so comes Nov. 19, when she will be serving a Native American thanksgiving dinner at the museum.
According to Pocknett, Native American days of thanksgiving are celebrated not just in November, but year-round. They are distinct from the national Thanksgiving holiday — a day that is commemorated by many Native people as a National Day of Mourning. Native thanksgiving celebrations begin at the new year, which is observed in March when the herring return and the first trees begin to show buds. “You just eat and give your thanks like everybody else. You’re celebrating family. You’re celebrating that we’re still here,” Pocknett says.
“We give thanks to the rain for cleansing. The trees. The ocean. We celebrate all those things and we give offerings,” she says. Those offerings include dance, tobacco, and songs. “We’ll give smoke and the smoke carries our prayers.”
The celebrations also include plenty of indigenous food.
The spring thanksgiving honoring the herring return is followed by celebrations of striped bass, bluefish, strawberries, raspberries, corn, squash, beans, and blueberries. Shellfish are an important part of the fall harvest thanksgiving.
November is when colder water begins producing sweet shellfish. Pocknett is using quahogs as stuffing for turkey, a bird that was found in abundance but was not necessarily a focus of Native American thanksgiving feasts. Pocknett’s turkey is brined with native cedar and maple. For the quahog stuffing, she roughly chops the clams and combines them with onions, celery, and bread. “It is fabulous. When you put it in that bird, the brininess of the quahog mixes with all those juices. . . Oh my God,” she says. While not made exclusively from native ingredients, the stuffing is the kind of food that Pocknett has eaten her whole life — seasonal and local.
Pocknett eats indigenous foods as frequently as possible, and she brought that sensibility with her when she became chef at the Pequot Cafe a year ago. Museum director Jason Mancini approached her to join the staff when he recognized a disconnect between the museum exhibits and its restaurant. “These exhibits have transported and transformed you. People would then go to the restaurant and find food you could get anywhere,” Mancini says. The director knew Pocknett from years of attending powwows where he saw people wait in line for 45 minutes or more for her food. He was also a fan, particularly of her turtle soup. “The most incredible thing I’d ever had,” he says. After multiple visits to Pocknett’s home in Mashpee, Mancini convinced her to join the museum. Since then chicken fingers and hot dogs have been replaced with bison burgers, corn nuggets, venison skewers, and that turtle soup.
Both the chef and director are looking to spread the message that Native Americans live and eat by the seasons, both historically and in the present. “We want to get back that sense of rhythm to people’s lives. We’ve become such a Walmart and Super Stop & Shop society that we forget about those things that are right at our doorsteps,” Mancini says. His goal is to increase awareness of many issues related to contemporary Native American foodways, including food sovereignty and health.
The thanksgiving feast is one more opportunity to get the message out. Pocknett’s recipe for stuffed pumpkin represents the complete fall bounty of the region: squash, corn, beans, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, cranberries, and wild rice. The last once grew extensively in the area, and Pocknett says a few spots of wild rice remain south of Boston.
The corn cakes with cranberry chutney she makes are a take on Native American “journey cakes” — which became known as johnny cakes. As she tells it, Native people moved inland for the winter and needed a food that would sustain them and travel well as they scouted for cold-weather homes in the fall. Ground corn was mixed with water and formed into a cake that could be carried in a pouch. Pocknett sought to glorify the simple cake with a recipe that includes scallions, sun-dried cranberries, and pepper. It is cooked on a griddle and topped with cranberry chutney. “We just put all this good stuff in here,” she says. Noticeably absent from the recipes are ingredients like eggs and milk. “We didn’t have chickens,” she says.
The chef is passionate about native foods, but eating food caught or foraged locally wasn’t always easy when she was growing up on Cape Cod in the 1960s. Pocknett’s parents sought to teach her self-reliance and the ability to live from the land from an early age. At age 7 she learned to shuck scallops and bake beans, a Saturday tradition for her family. At age 5, she began sneaking foods from the family fridge to try in her Easy Bake Oven — eels, venison, scallops, whatever was available. “I was a little embarrassed going to school. I went to a predominantly white school. I wanted to be like the other kids. I wanted to have turkey from the store and roast from the store. I had a leg of deer or eels or raccoon,” she says. Pocknett began pursuing a career in food as a young teenager when she worked at The Flume, a Native American restaurant in Mashpee owned by her uncle Earl Mills. She went on to begin Sly Fox Den Catering, which specializes in Native American powwows.
Timing of the museum dinner can’t help but lead to comparisons with the Plymouth Thanksgiving, a holiday Pocknett says she never observed. “We celebrated thanksgiving many different ways. This particular thanksgiving, we ate. It’s a National Day of Mourning for us. But we all have to live together. So you go with the flow. You go with the flow,” she says.
Mancini believes it’s important to broaden the understanding about thanksgiving traditions. “There are a lot of sad stories and angry stories about colonization, but there are also lots of opportunities to come together and learn about one another and to respect one another’s traditions,” Mancini said. He was introduced to Native American traditions when he visited community thanksgivings in Mashpee. He says the generosity he experienced made a lasting impression.
“We are very thankful people,” Pocknett says. “All seasons, every month, we have something to be thankful for.”Michael Floreak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org